Tom Sorensen

‘Never should have let him go.’ It’s not a good idea to overlook Captain Munnerlyn.

Players walk off the field after the first practice of minicamp Tuesday alone or in groups small and large. I wait for Captain Munnerlyn, the quotable Carolina Panthers nickel cornerback.

Panthers I haven’t seen for months or years occasionally stop to talk. Most are easy to pick out. They’re big. Munnerlyn is not. He’s listed at 5-9. I finally stop watching the big guys and look for Munnerlyn. By now, only a few players remain. No. 41 is not among them.

I missed Munnerlyn.

“That figures,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera says.

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A seventh-round draft pick out of South Carolina in 2009, Munnerlyn is easy to overlook. The Panthers have tried.

In 2010, they drafted two cornerbacks in the seventh round. In 2011, they drafted one in the fourth. In 2012, they drafted one in the fifth (Washington and “Dancing with the Stars” star Josh Norman).

Carolina collected cornerbacks, and Munnerlyn kept track. If the Panthers wanted to get rid of him, he was not about to go quietly. Any time there was any skirmish against an opponent, Munnerlyn leaped in as if he’d been invited.

Now 30, Munnerlyn is intense and tough and in 2014 he signed with the Minnesota Vikings and played three seasons there.

“We never should have let him go,” says Rivera.

Munnerlyn returned to the Panthers last season. He expected to play more, but was often replaced by linebacker Shaq Thompson in the nickel package when the team went big. Frustrated, he left a practice early in December and was declared inactive against Green Bay.

“He’s a feisty guy,” says Rivera. “He’s really having a good camp right now. He’s really taken an important role with these younger players.”

Cornerback Corn Elder, who was drafted in 2017 but missed last season with injury, says Munnerlyn has been his mentor. He says he learns from what Munnerlyn tells him, but also from what Munnerlyn shows him.

“Captain gets these guys to understand how important it is to do things the right way,” says Rivera.

Does Munnerlyn do things the right way?

“Absolutely,” says Rivera.

Rivera says that when a team drafts players that play your position, you’re going to take it personally.

In 1984, the Chicago Bears drafted Rivera, a linebacker out of California, in the second round. In 1988, ’89 and ’90, the Bears invested a second-round pick on a linebacker.

How’d you react?

Rivera didn’t say, “Nice draft, Bears.”

“It made me competitive,” he says.

Rivera played through 1992.

There are players you can’t imagine the Panthers without. Even when he was a Viking, it was if Minnesota leased Munnerlyn.

Because of his size, opponents might not always see him coming. But when he gets there, they’ll know.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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